A conversation with Roger Ballen on the Repressive Nature of Society

It is at ten in the morning in Parktown North, on a quiet Friday morning, when I arrive at Gallery MOMO to meet Roger Ballen. Having arrived ten minutes early I saunter about the gallery, stopping briefly to take in the images, an indulgence which proved impossible on the opening evening, what with the packed cross-generational audience jostling about excitedly to view the work. On this morning, however, only a single silver car is parked outside, looking gloomily onto the deserted street.

‘Your images are terrifying,’ I say to him after a brief friendly handshake upon his arrival. Surprisingly, he is warm yet removed and serious at the same time. We’re in the first room – The Basement. ‘The House Project’ is a collaboration between Roger Ballen and Italian writer, philosopher and poet Didi Bozzini. The House is treated as a metaphor for the human mind that contains four floors. Each floor is has a symbolic relation to the human mind. The Basement is the primordial part of the human mind, the ground floor deals with human absurdity, the second floor deals with trying to construct order in the world of chaos and the top floor deals with the ethereal – ‘people trying to make sense of the heavens and religion and their place in the world and their place in the universe.’

‘What they say of the human condition is a terrible indictment on humanity,’ I continue. At first, he considers me quite grimly with strained bulging eyes and then says, ‘First of all, when we talk about the human condition we’re not talking about what’s good or bad. We’re talking about what exists. That’s what it is. I think it’s a good thing that people come to understand the condition in some way or another – it has good parts and bad parts, otherwise there’s no possibility of improvements.’ I tell him that South Africa thrives on this idea of an innate humanity, on innate goodness, on Ubuntu and his images transgress the ontological premise of that idea and are almost too pessimistic, especially regarding the narratives South Africa has tried, since 1994, to construct about itself.

‘That’s the issue,’ he says. ‘The construction itself. Who’s constructing it? Is it advertising agencies? Is it government? Is it the people who live in starvation? Who’s constructing this? It’s probably an advertising agency. So is this a genuine issue or is it just made up of an elite trying to serve its own interest?’ Inside the darkened cube of The Basement I can only think of the meaninglessness and the travesty of the 1994 fad of ‘rainbowism’ but gradually and tragically I see its usefulness, especially among those in middle classes, the wealthy and those who utilise it, rightly or wrongly, to navigate their way to cosier spots on the exclusive table of South Africa’s elite society. It is a useful delusion. In its own way it plays into the human condition, into modes of survival, the quest for power, comfort and control and the misshapen social desire to find comity amongst one’s countrymen.

‘When I look at a house,’ I say, ‘I think of home, you know, as an elusive space. A place that contains traces of something that once held together but has now begun to crumble and is, in fact, crumbling…’

‘It is, actually,’ he interjects. ‘That’s the truth of the matter. You’re not getting any younger. Youth is about growing up and your middle and old age is about succumbing to the forces of nature. That’s the truth. The problem with the approach that people take with something that is authentic is that it’s threatening because of the repressive nature of society, because of the repressive nature of the way people deal with reality, so the issue is if you’re talking about the crumbling nature, you’re talking about life. Life isn’t about things getting bigger and bigger and living forever and forever and everything going well. Life has its chaotic moments and has its good moments and ultimately human beings –like everything in nature– is not able to deal with the aspect of dying. People are scared of that, so when they look at these pictures [and they] resonate a sense of truth with their condition which they can’t deal with and then they call the work pessimistic, dark, depressing. But they can’t deal with the truth. They’re living an illusion and they’d rather have an advertising agency tell them what’s good and bad.’

‘But your work is also very modernist, very surreal and, as you know, South African photography has always, somehow, been centred on the idea of documentary photography…’

‘That’s the problem,’ Ballen says as we enter The Ground Floor. ‘South African photography is divided up into three parts. One, people spend their life on Instagram taking snap shots. The second part is people who enjoy taking pictures of zebras and lions and their family marriages and this sort of thing. The third part is people who spend a lot of time in photography being considered the more serious photographers in the country –most of those spend their time trying to document political-social issues. That’s never been my real concern.’

‘Which makes me think of the more primitive linguistic structures in the other room,’ I interrupt him. ‘You know, it’s strange that even those images find some kind of similitude in all of us in our collective recognition of something terrifying in them that we can’t quite put our finger on. And this sense comes through in the shapes.’

‘We’re all linked in some strange way so when you look at these pictures, the more primitive pictures, these may have something to do with the levels of the mind that existed before language came into effect. I can’t say any of these things in any objective way. These are very primary images, very archetypal images, that…’

‘…the internal repressed self is the same in all of us,’ I interrupt him briefly.

‘That’s a very good point. The images affect something deep in our own minds that we cannot really verbalise but we know that they exist in some way or another. There’s something here that goes beyond language; that goes beyond culture. It is innate in the human psyche, somehow, which we can’t explain. There’s something basic to themselves -–these pictures– which is a very crucial part of what art is about for me, at least. I’m not a political artist. I’m not a social artist. I’m not a cultural artist. I don’t do work to try make comment about South Africa. Even though people thought I did. But that’s never been my goal, so…these pictures, hopefully, have a timelessness to them. Have an international impact and they’re able to affect people in a strong psychological, positive, manner. I’m hopeful. I hope that’s the case but I can’t guarantee it.’

With the kind of polemic that met his previous work, especially Outland, his doubt and reserve is a pragmatic way of dealing with the way his work is often received.

Roger Ballen’s pictures are minimalistic. Everything detail and object in the picture appearing there for a precise reason and integrating with everything else in a very clear, focused, formalistic way. ‘That’s how I differ from a lot of other photographers who just focus on content,’ he says before we go to The Attic. ‘I focus on form as much as I do on content.  So you won’t find anything in my picture that basically shouldn’t be there. If I find anything in my pictures that shouldn’t be there I probably won’t show you the picture. If I can’t get the picture to be organic then I can’t show the picture. There’s no point in showing pictures with mistakes in them. I shouldn’t be able to find mistakes. So, you know, I’m very formalistically orientated. You rarely can find something in my pictures that doesn’t belong there.’

The attic is the upper floor of the house in ‘The House Project.’  The pictures are filled with birds. ‘Many of these pictures come from the book Asylum of the Birds,’ Ballen says. ‘And they’re also in some cases religious iconic imagery. It also relates back to the so called heaven. We have a mixture of birds, heavens, religion in this room.  And I guess people can’t find peace looking up at the heavens, either. There’s no answer up there, either. There’s only confusion up there as well. There’s nothing wrong about it. The images of religion are there to help people cope with death and chaos. They help people feel like they have some sort of answer; they help people not think about these issues.’

In ‘The House Project’ Didi Bozzini’s text and Ballen’s photographs stand side by side without necessarily illustrating each other directly. ‘Didi wrote text to these four floors and I used photographs from my career which spans like 50 years.”

Five minutes before our conversation is over a Belgian woman from the BBC is waiting, patiently, for her turn to interview him.

‘Please give us ten more minutes,’ he says gesticulating to his other interviewer.

‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I have everything I need.’

‘Are you sure?’ He insists.

‘I’m sure.’

‘Here’s my card. If you need anything speak to my assistant.’

‘I will,’ I tell him and before stepping out I see it: the amputated cowboy mannequin pointing his gun towards the sky and I wonder if this is Ballen’s alter ego – that after so many decades of shooting people, objects, spaces, and making art he is still as sharp as before, even at the age of 65.

**Originally appeared in Artthrob**


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